What’s wrong with sex?

Nothing; it’s wonderful: “The younger women melt men’s hearts with rouge and powder and songs and smiles… Ah! … a tryst in a boat on the waves equals a lifetime of delightful encounters.”

Thus the courtier-poet Oe Yukitoki (955-1010) celebrated the asobi (women of pleasure) of his day. Their boats plied the rivers of the port towns, and poets paid them homage.

“Their voices halt the clouds floating through the valleys,” wrote Oe Masafusa (1041-1111), another enraptured court poet. Historian Janet Goodwin brings the traffic to life in “Selling Songs and Smiles: The Sex Trade in Heian and Kamakura Japan” (2007).

Asobi were singers, dancers and sexual artists of the highest attainment, accorded the highest praise by society’s highest arbiters of taste and public morals. “Her vigor in soliciting lovers,” observed courtier Fujiwara Akihira (989-1066) of a fictional, but presumably true-to-life, asobi, “her knowledge of all the sexual positions … her mastery of the dragon’s flutter and tiger’s tread techniques — all are her endowments.”

Many men — women, too — down the stern, glowering centuries of war and strained peace that separate us from those ancient songs and smiles must have wished themselves born in that freakishly blessed little warp in historical space-time known as the Heian Period (794-1185). Soft were its ways, gentle its manners, many and varied its pleasures — only for the numerically miniscule courtly nobility, true; the lowborn 99 percent of the population were deemed scarcely human — but for the very favored very few, life was, or at least could be, good, perhaps never better.

What’s wrong with sex? Nothing, and yet Heian permissiveness is a historical aberration. By and large, individuals love sex but societies frown on it. The ancient Hebrews gave it its due, but only for reproduction. We were to “be fruitful and multiply.” Sex for pleasure — “fornication” — was criminal, often capitally so.

The early Christians feared sex, despised it. They anticipated its extinction in the kingdom of heaven. Here on Earth, said Saint Paul, “I would that all men were even as I myself” — celibate. Impossible, as he knew — and so, “If they cannot contain, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.” Marriage was a faute de mieux.

Confucius, envisioning no kingdom of heaven, was more tolerant of earthly passion — venturing, however, this mild admonition: “I have yet to meet the man who is as fond of virtue as he is of beauty in women.” Oe Yukitoki, the pleasure-loving courtier cited above, paraphrases the master as though in self-reproach: “Why don’t we take our hearts that are so fond of making love and embark upon the road to loving wisdom?”

Heian nobles married — which is to say they acknowledged some limits to sexual freedom — but Heian marriage was such a vague, formless arrangement that virtues like fidelity, and vices like infidelity, seem hardly definable. “Elite society,” notes Goodwin, “tolerated a wide range of sexual relationships and behavior. Male-male relations, male promiscuity and female premarital relationships were well within the bounds of acceptable behavior.”

Women could inherit and bequeath property — another historical aberration. Moreover, “Neither making their bodies publicly available nor accepting compensation in exchange for sexual services automatically stigmatized women in the sex trade … There was no sharp contrast between ‘whore’ and ‘honest woman’ as one might have found in contemporary Christian European societies.”

How did old Japan escape the straitjacket that bound so many other civilizations? Its mythological birth was propitious. Japan was born free — born of sexual congress, sexual joy, sexual innocence, innocent fun. The primeval deities Izanami and Izanagi are like two shy teenagers, bewildered by an onrush of first love. How to express it? They don’t know what to do. Like all of us, they learn. Their initial awkwardness irons itself out. Izanagi begets, and Izanami bears, the Japanese islands and myriad gods and goddesses. Sex was more than fun, it was sacred. Asobi were more likely to be revered as shamans than damned as whores.

It couldn’t last — or could it have? It did last a very long time — 400 years. Inevitably or not, courtier-like ease gave way, when push came to shove, to the armed camp. For centuries the samurai warriors had lived apart, despised as rustic boors. They bided their time. Their time came. They seized it. Heian crumbled. On its ruins rose the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The love song died, the war cry sounded.

It was a sexual revolution in reverse — from freedom to constraint, from relative equality for women to stifling oppression. A warrior society is patriarchal almost by definition. Sexuality was no longer a merely private matter. The 13th-century chronicle “Azuma Kagami,” in a very few words quoted by Goodwin, shows us why: “Around dusk, a young wife suddenly entered Kiminari’s gate. One must say that, faintly visible in the moonlight, she was perilously beautiful. For some unknown reason (perhaps because she was perilously beautiful?) she aroused Kiminari’s desire. In any case, they have already spent some nights together. This is a motive for murder.”

Murder begets murder, which begets war, which begets chaos when driven by sex instead of the cardinal samurai virtue that justifies war and everything else — loyalty. Heian permissiveness was no longer sustainable. Laws evolved to root it out. “Those who have sexual relations with another man’s wife,” stipulates one, “shall have half their property confiscated” — a distant echo of Biblical injunctions against fornication. It dampened passion, at least erotic passion, which yielded over time to the passionate quest for a good samurai death.

A “motive for murder”? Not for the Heian courtier. Not for Genji, eponymous hero of the 11th-century court novel “The Tale of Genji.” Cuckolded as he had cuckolded others, including his father, the reigning emperor, Genji is hurt but understanding: “It was all very distasteful. But he would say nothing. He wondered if his own father had long ago known what was happening and said nothing.”

This concludes a two-part series on Heian-Kamakura Japan. Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu,” is an anthology of the best stories from The Living Past.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.